Odd rhymes

Perhaps it was the dog-end of November daytime gloom that triggered the recollection. The deep greyness of the sky blanketed the city with a half-light. Indoors, reading without a lamp was difficult.

It must be forty or perhaps fifty years since I heard the words, my sister would recite them. They must have been learned from a member of the family or from someone at the village primary school, for we had no other contacts who would have been inclined to share odd lines of verse.

The first stanza, if I recall it correctly, went something like this:

One fine day in the middle of the night
Two blind men got up to fight.
Back to back they faced each other
Drew their swords and shot each other.

Perhaps there were other verses, perhaps the lines recalled by my sister were no more than an introduction to a tale.

An online search brought me to the webpages of the British Columbia Folklore Society. The Folklore Society’s version of the rhyme that was so often recited by my sister has four stanzas and suggests that the men were not blind but dead.

One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys* got up to fight, [*or men]
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other,

One was blind and the other couldn’t, see
So they chose a dummy for a referee.
A blind man went to see fair play,
A dumb man went to shout “hooray!”

A paralysed donkey passing by,
Kicked the blind man in the eye,
Knocked him through a nine inch wall,
Into a dry ditch and drowned them all,

A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came to arrest the two dead boys,
If you don’t believe this story’s true,
Ask the blind man he saw it too!

The length of the rhyme suggests it predates the truncated version which for so long intrigued us.

The BC Folklore Society received variants from North America, Europe and Australia, it has obviously been a rhyme that has travelled and that has undergone frequent adaptations. The multiplicity of versions and videos to be found on the web suggest that recitation of the words is still popular with some children.

Where did the rhyme originate? The lines are attributed to Spike Milligan, but given that Spike Milligan was not born until 1918 and that the lines have been in print since the 1920s, the attribution seems unlikely.

There are no suggestions as to the meaning of the lines, Wikipedia suggests the rhyme is “nonsense verse.” Perhaps within it there is an allegorical significance, but if there is, it’s hard to find.


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